Be careful where you get your news about coronavirus

Robert H. Shmerling, MD

Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

News about a deadly virus that appeared in Wuhan, China in December (now called 2019 novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV) is everywhere lately. And as the number of cases rises, it’s understandable if you’re wondering how likely it is that you or a loved one will become ill. And quite likely, you’re also wondering how to prevent this.

So, where should you turn for the latest information on a rapidly changing situation? It’s hard to beat the convenience of the internet, and we know there’s a lot of useful and reliable information online. But there’s also a lot of misinformation. The trick is to figure out which is which.

Why you need to know about this new virus

The concern regarding this new virus is well-deserved. As of January 31, there have been

  • Nearly 10,000 confirmed cases and 213 confirmed deaths attributed to 2019-nCoV, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 99% of the cases and all of the deaths have been in China.
  • 26 countries reporting cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Nearly all of those with confirmed cases either live in China or had traveled from China to other countries.
  • six cases in the US in four states (Arizona, California, Illinois, and Washington). Another 160 people in 36 states are being evaluated for suspected infection.

All of these numbers are likely to rise in the coming days and weeks, because each infected person could potentially spread the infection to many others. And it’s possible that a person can spread the infection before he or she knows they’re sick; this has not been proven for this particular virus, but if true, quickly containing its spread may be impossible. That’s why it’s particularly important to get reliable information about what is happening and what you can do to protect yourself.

Beware: Misinformation is rampant

Just as the number of people and countries affected by this new virus have spread, so have conspiracy theories and unfounded claims about it. Already social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok, have seen a number of false and misleading posts about 2019-nCoV, such as:

  • “Oregano Oil Proves Effective Against Coronavirus,” an unfounded claim
  • a hoax stating that the US government had created and patented a vaccine for coronavirus years ago, shared with nearly 5,000 Facebook users
  • a false claim that “coronavirus is a human-made virus in the laboratory”
  • sales of unproven “nonmedical immune boosters” to help people ward off 2019-nCoV
  • unfounded recommendations to prevent infection by taking vitamin C and avoiding spicy foods
  • a video with useless advice about preventing 2019-nCoV by modifying your diet (for example, by avoiding cold drinks, milkshakes, or ice cream). This video, which demonstrates the removal of a parasitic worm from a person’s lip, is many years old and has nothing to do with 2019-nCoV.

Facebook is trying to fact-check postings, label those that are clearly false, and reduce their ranking so they are less prominently displayed. Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok have also taken steps to limit or label misinformation. But it’s nearly impossible to catch them all, especially since some are in private social media groups and are harder to find.

In the US, the flu is a much bigger threat

While news of a novel and deadly virus spreading across the globe may be terrifying, it’s important to recognize that the most threatening virus in this country right now isn’t 2019-nCoV — it’s the flu. According to the CDC, there have already been up to 26 million cases of the flu this season, leading to hundreds of thousands of hospital admissions and up to 25,000 deaths. And this flu season has not been particularly severe.

Getting a flu shot is a great first step if you’re worrying about avoiding illness. Other measures to protect yourself from the flu (such as staying away from others who are sick and taking care to not infect others if you’re sick) are basic strategies that can also help you avoid 2019-nCoV.

Reliable online sources on 2019-nCoV

While no one source of information is perfect, some are undeniably better than others! It’s best to look for sites that

  • rely on experts who use well-accepted scientific analyses and publish their results in reputable medical journals
  • have a mission to inform and protect the public, such as the CDC and the WHO, which recently added a myth busters page to its information on 2019-nCoV
  • are not promoting or selling a product related to the information provided.

Other good online sources of information on the virus include

While gathering information online may be your easiest initial option, contact your doctor if you have symptoms of an infection, such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath. If necessary, your doctor may recommend that you see a specialist at an academic medical center (such as a hospital affiliated with a major medical school) who is likely to have the most recent information about a previously unknown infectious illness like this one.

The bottom line

When considering a new infectious disease about which so much is still unknown, it’s important to seek out reliable information and act on it. Be skeptical of implausible conspiracy theories or claims of “fake news” that dismiss recommendations from public health officials. Addressing the concerns surrounding 2019-nCoV requires accessible, reliable, and frequently updated information; the best we can do is to look to the experts whose mission it is to protect public health.

Follow me on Twitter @RobShmerling

Related Information: Cold and Flu

Comments:

  1. Henry Smith

    Although the World Health Organization has declared Novel Coronavirus a PHEIC, the large threat of the lives still remains in China where death toll has crossed 1300 and the number of people infected has reached over 60000. In US, as the writer correctly mentioned, Flu remains the larger threat over Coronavirus as the latter’s origin is outside.

  2. Dane

    Neither of my two previous comments were posted, though they referenced a Helsinki University, Department of Public Health, article available on PubMed, and a new clinical trial registered on Feb 11, 2020 at ClinicalTrials.gov

    Will you post my comments?

  3. Isa Gar

    Is the coronavirus a man-made virus?

    • Robert H. Shmerling, MD
      Robert H. Shmerling, MD

      No, it is not man-made. This is one of many misconceptions I’ve heard quoted recently. See the links above for reliable information, including the CDC link which says this: “Coronaviruses are common in many different species of animals, including camels and bats. Rarely, these coronaviruses can evolve and infect humans and then spread between humans.”

  4. Anthony

    Gilead Sciences and other pharmaceuticals are in Wuhan conducting Clinical trials. The media have reported that medical experts have stated that evidence of the drugs efficacy will take 4 or more months to determine. This appears to be a strict adherence to protocol and given the current situation seems to me to be a nonsensical if not an outright intellectually lazy approach to dealing with this type of life and death crisis. Within 4 months, the infected will have either recovered on their own or died. An individual who was treated in the state of Washington showed signs of improvement the day after first receiving the drug and is now fully recovered. In this case, I would think that to some extent, clinical protocols should be revised.

  5. Shantelle

    Okay what I dont get is they have created high quality cleaners to clean infected surfaces that have these viruses on them such as Corona viruses and what I dont get is why can’t health officials create a proper antidote to vaccinate people for the virus. I find it quite difficult to understand I mean they know what the Corona virus is they know what it does to the immune system I mean the virus obviously needs to make or duplicate itself to even spread I font get it and they know obviously how to prevent or I should say how they would know how to take precautions on not getting the virus….??hmmmm

    • Robert H. Shmerling, MD
      Robert H. Shmerling, MD

      Creating a vaccine is quite complicated and it takes time to develop one that is safe and effective. Sometimes it takes year or decades – sometimes it seems impossible – for example, we still don’t have an effective vaccine for HIV/AIDs. If an unreliable or untested vaccine was rushed into use, it could easily cause more harm than benefit.

      Coronavirus infection is thought to spread between humans by respiratory droplets through the air (as with coughing or sneezing) so the role of surface cleansers is not clear.

      There are a number of precautions people can take: see links to reliable sources of information such as the CDC and WHO in the blog post.

  6. Kate

    The UKs NHS is the best source of information. They are clear, succinct and not prone to conjecture, hysterics or waffling on and on. If they don’t know, they say so instead of theorising. I dismiss my own nations health service and go to the NHS in the UK for this reason.

  7. jo

    What is the best PPE recommendation againts Corona virus? How is the transmission? Airborne? touching? foods? improper hygiene? It is spreading so fast and do we have to wait for infected to be diagnosed before we wear mask? Prevention by wearing mask must be a protocol or later?

  8. Angelo Pusiol

    Need more hygienic measures on the planes, clean air filters, masks in the airports , liquid gel for the hands at the checkins, all hell of a sudden!

  9. Prasenjit Dev

    Rumors cause almost all perils in our society. Awareness is the anti- dote to coronavirus. Let’s spread the truth about coronavirus and serve as a life saver.

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